The 1986 Boston Bruins were coming off two straight years of first-round playoff exits, one as a heavy favorite, the other as a noble underdog who came up just short. In either case, they were looking to get back on track. But a long season where simply making the postseason proved more difficult than normal set the stage for another early postseason dismissal.
The Bruins were in transition at the goalie spot, with Pat Riggins and Doug Keans splitting the time throughout the regular season and play in net was often spotty. But the defensive unit as a whole was led by Hall of Famer Ray Borque, a 2nd-team All-Star, and they played good enough team defense to rank sixth in the NHL in goals allowed.
It was scoring that was the real problem. Barry Pederson returned after missing the 1985 season with injuries. He scored 29 goals, but wasn’t the same player he’d been in 1984. Rick Middleton, the team’s most consistent offensive threat through the 1980s was limited to 49 games this season.
There were still good scorers, with Keith Crowder getting 38 goals and Charlie Simmer lighting the lamp 36 times. Borque was a skilled passer, as was Ken Linseman. Each finished with 58 assists. But at the end of the day they only ranked 12th in a 21-team league for goals scored.
The NHL playoff format was straightforward and generous—the top four teams in each division qualified and played among each other for the first two rounds. There were five teams in the old Adams Division. Boston’s rivals were the Quebec Nordiques (today’s Colorado Avalanche), their ancient rival from Montreal, the Buffalo Sabres and the Hartford Whalers (today’s Carolina Hurricane). The purpose of the 80-game regular season was to be better than one of those teams.
That would prove challenging and not just for Boston. The Adams was the most balanced division in hockey for 1986, with all five teams being better than three eventual playoff qualifiers from other divisions. It was a five-team race from start to finish.
The Bruins came out of the gate strong, with an 8-2-1 start that included a win over the Canadiens. One of the losses was to Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champ. But Boston started to stagnate and by the New Year, the record was 17-13-7. More concerning was that in thirteen games against Adam Division rivals from November 5 to January 1 the Bruins record was 3-7-3
A 4-0 win over the Sabres on January 4 soothed some pain and Boston closed a strong January by sweeping two straight from the Whalers. Their record was up to 25-18-7. They were in hot pursuit of Quebec and Montreal for the division lead…and barely holding off Buffalo and Hartford.
The first nine days of February did not go well, with losses to the Canadiens, Sabres and Nordiques. By month’s end they were 30-26-7. Boston was still in third place, but they were a little closer to Buffalo and Hartford behind them than they were to Quebec and Montreal ahead.
Three straight losses in early March, at the hands of the Whalers, Nordiques and Canadiens meant Boston was in serious danger of missing the playoffs. That’s an unacceptable outcome in New England today and in the days when 16/21 teams made the postseason, it would be nothing short of public embarrassment.
On March 13, the Bruins stepped up and beat the Canadiens 3-2. The win was part of an important eleven-game stretch where they went 6-1-4 and got back on track. At the end of March, Boston had two straight games with Buffalo. The Sabres were in line to be the team left standing without a chair when the music stopped. The Bruins made sure of it with wins of 2-1 and 5-3. Buffalo was going home. Boston edged out Hartford for third place.
Now there was opportunity in the playoffs. Not just for advancement, but for revenge. Montreal was the opponent and the Canadiens had been the ones to knock the Bruins out each of the previous two years.
Montreal was led by Mats Naslund and his 43 goals. Bobby Smith and Kjell Dahl were each 30-plus goal scorers. The Canadiens had the sixth-best offense in the league.
They could also defend. Larry Robinson, a part of the great Montreal dynasty in the late 1970s was 34-years-old, but the Hall of Famer could still play. So could veteran Bob Gainey.
Chris Chelios was young, but he was another future of Hall of Famer already making an impact. The same was true for Guy Charbonneau. And it was most certainly the case for goaltender Patrick Roy.
The first round was a best-of-five affair in 1986 and opened up at Montreal’s Bell Centre. After a scoreless first period, the Bruins gave up three consecutive goals in the second period and lost 3-1.
Head coach Butch Goring pulled the trigger on a change at goalie and called on 19-year-old Bill Ranford. The kid had the same second period problems as the veterans did, giving up two goals after a scoreless opening period. Boston lost 3-2.
Back home in the old Garden, the Bruins took an early 1-0 lead and led 3-2 going into the third period. Defensively, they limited Montreal to twenty shots on goal. But Gainey took over, scoring twice and ending Boston’s season with a 4-3 loss.
It was another tough-to-swallow playoff exit. Even the positive—the development of Ranford in goal—would prove to bite Boston in the rear. Ranford ended up in goal for Edmonton and led the Oilers to a Finals victories over the Bruins in 1990.
1986 was a great year for Boston sports. The Patriots had made the Super Bowl that January and would win the AFC East again the coming fall. The Red Sox won the American League pennant. Larry Bird’s Celtics were one of the great NBA champions of all-time. The Bruins weren’t able to get in on the fun.